Rise of the Machines

Seemingly intuiting my desire for a quick diversion from politics into a more important topic, Kevin Drum links to this post by Stuart Staniford discussing the day, not long in coming, when Planet Earth's robots outnumber its humans, including a semi-serious projection that shows Them outnumbering Us some time in the early 2030s. Should we be worried? Well, yeah, but not because they're going to kill us all. The problem is capitalism.

Keep in mind that even as the number of robots increases dramatically, that doesn't mean there will be millions of self-aware humanoid machines walking around, planning the day when they finally rise up against their meat-sack oppressors. Instead, there will lots and lots of relatively simple robots doing things that now can only be done by humans, and nearly all of them will look nothing like us. Can a robot run a burrito truck? Not now it can't, but some steady advances in speech recognition and mechanical coordination will certainly bring that day before long. Amazon recently bought Kiva Systems,a company that makes robots that bring items to warehouse workers for packing, instead of the workers having to run all over the warehouse finding the items. That's fine for now, but it's pretty obvious that before too long, the robotic systems will become sophisticated enough that you won't need the workers at all (or at least you'll only need a few of them). In a few decades, the idea that we used to actually clean our own toilets and vacuum our own floors will seem ridiculous. Nevertheless, robots meant to look like people are probably going to remain little more than a curiosity for a long time, even as the more functional robots multiply.

It has been pointed out that the primary threat of globalization comes to the jobs in the middle of the work force, while many of the jobs at the top and bottom remain relatively (though not entirely) safe. You can outsource a call center or a factory, but you can't have a low-paid worker in Vietnam clean out hospital bedpans or do neurosurgery in Michigan. We could be heading for a similar situation with automation, where robots hollow out the middle, and if you're a highly educated knowledge worker you're OK, while everyone else has to take the increasingly crappy jobs that still require a human. Over time, the capabilities of robots could press outward toward both top and bottom, until eventually they actually are able to both do the neurosurgery and clean the bedpans.

And that may be the real crisis point. It's one thing when a robot turns out to be just as good at legal research as a lawyer; the lawyer it displaces may have a rough time, but she'll probably find some other kind of gainful employment. But once robots take the low-skill jobs, the people who now do them will have few other options for employment.

The laziest techno-utopian visions often assume that once robots are doing all the work, the rest of us will be able to devote ourselves to creative endeavors and generally pursue our happiness, free of the crushing demands of work. The problem is, that assumes we'd be living in some kind of post-capitalist society, like on Star Trek, where we never really learn what people on Earth do with their days, but it certainly doesn't seem to involve labor. But that's unlikely to be our future, so we're all still going to have to find ways to get people to pay us for doing stuff. Otherwise we won't have the money to purchase the fruits of all those robots' labors. As Staniford says, "Depending on how good the roboticists get how quickly, there's going to become a point where there really isn't enough in it for a sufficiently large fraction of humanity. I simply see no way this trend can continue without eventually rendering almost all of us irrelevant. People's basic survival instincts will not tolerate that. However, by that point, there may very well be no easy way back, and all hell will break loose." In other words, the problem won't be that the robots will kill us, but that the rise of robots will disintegrate our society, none of us will be able to make a living, and we'll kill each other. On the other hand, wouldn't it be nice if a robot cleaned your toilet for you?

Comments

"The laziest techno-utopian visions often assume that once robots are doing all the work, the rest of us will be able to devote ourselves to creative endeavors and generally pursue our happiness, free of the crushing demands of work. The problem is, that assumes we'd be living in some kind of post-capitalist society, like on Star Trek, where we never really learn what people on Earth do with their days, but it certainly doesn't seem to involve labor. But that's unlikely to be our future, so we're all still going to have to find ways to get people to pay us for doing stuff. Otherwise we won't have the money to purchase the fruits of all those robots' labors."

Just saying "unlikely" is a bit lazy. The situation would have to be arranged - in a way that the "RICH economy" idea fits pretty well:
http://www.deepleafproductions.com/wilsonlibrary/texts/raw-RICH.html

In Wilson's picture, the government actually turns to incentivizing the elimination of as many jobs as possible, rewarding people for inventing ways to eliminate their own, and then taps the resulting increase in productivity to distribute a "universal dividend" to everyone, a guaranteed income.
Note that this doesn't necessarily require departing from capitalism at all. People could compete for the remaining jobs, ones that still required minds, because they were interested, wanted extra income, for something to do, etc. People could still trade and buy and sell to each other.

This is worth interest, not because it isn't silly, but because of the troublesomeness of the problem Staniford is talking about. Technology does eliminate jobs while increasing productivity. What does happen when this goes beyond a certain point? Something like the RICH economy idea would be an actual working approach.

It's not just robots that bring this up. "Fab labs," that are being designed to more and more make anything on command out of basic materials, are still in their infancy in capabilities and in quality, but that doesn't mean they'll stay there. And there are enthusiasts in the open-source movement who are particularly trying to make "fab labs" that can similarly duplicate themselves for the cost of the basic materials plus house current - so that the devices are dirt cheap, industry can't capture them, and, more and more of the other things businesses would like to sell have alternatives that are nearly free, so that it's crazy not to get such a cheap machine or ask a friend to make one for you.

The choices are to restrict these technologies somehow so that people still need to pay each other - while sacrificing the great increase in effective plenty that they represent - or to get the increase in plenty by a change that would mean that the jobs aren't needed. The former, which would presumably restrict robots and "fab lab" machines along the lines of copyright restrictions extended to physical object forms, would be a lot like Cracked's article on the FARTS economy ( http://www.cracked.com/article_18817_5-reasons-future-will-be-ruled-by-b.s..html ). And the sacrifice in plenty, for humanity and for individuals - the sacrifice in options!

Given the artificial, enforced-by-police hothouse of scarcity that "having to find ways to get people to pay us for doing stuff" would require, isn't it worth stopping a little longer to think about alternatives than just the time needed to call them "lazy" and to say they're unlikely? Particularly if we factor in Stuart Saniford's glum take on how serious the problem is.

Unless a product or service has to be created at point of delivery, it will be produced either in the lowest labor wage country in the world, or manufactured, assembled or prosessed by computer automated intelligent machines. Only a small number of high skill well paid jobs will be required and the rest of human work will be low skill menial labor that will have a difficult challenge placing a claim on the economy for a life supporting wage. At that point government intervention will be needed to mandate a Minimum Wage sufficent to maintain a pseudo "middle class' living standard ,or we will witness a collapse of the democratic political economy that elevated America to the peak of it's greatness. A country of hungry peasants with weapons is not a strong environment to produce prosperity, peace and stability.

The techno-utopian visions all lack descriptions of how we get from here to there. It's of no value to simply assume away the hardest part of the problem.

The transition, from billions of people who need to work to feed their families and to be meaningfully engaged with the world, to billions who live lives of unrivaled leisure, will be tremendously painful--more than any other change which we've suffered in our evolutionary past.

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